Glyn Reece of Penny's in Chester was caught out 10 years ago but he hasn't been stung since. "A member of staff was taking £200 a week off us in cash and goods," he recalls. "She'd take about £30 a day out of the till and hand £20-worth of sweets to her son. She was caught on CCTV and sacked on the spot. She was a trusted member of staff and definitely someone we would not have expected to do this."
The saying 'once bitten, twice shy' comes to mind as Glyn remembers how he set about making sure it never happened again. He immediately made a change to staff contracts, stating that he had the right to search them - their bags or their pockets - on the premises or when they were leaving the premises. "They do it in the big stores so if it's good enough for them then it's good enough for me," says Glyn. "I know that one supermarket chain only lets staff take in transparent plastic bags so they can see what they are taking in and what they are taking out. My search policy is the ultimate deterrent and threat, all in one."
According to ACAS, employers can make random checks on employees, but strict measures have to be in place. First, the fact that there is scope for random checks has to be made clear at interview stage and clearly stated in the contract of employment and in the company rule book. Without this, employers who make random checks could be in breach of contract and could be invading an employee's human rights. ACAS therefore advises all employers to seek legal advice before putting the measures in place.
Staff theft is something a lot of retailers don't like talking about as they see it as a failure - that they have employed someone who has turned out to be dishonest - but it really can happen to anyone. Dean Holborn, who is just opening his second shop in Redhill, Surrey, says: "Every retailer has this problem at some point, whether they realise it or not. We've never really had it with cash but we have with stock, particularly cigarettes. When it does happen, it makes you suspicious and you do look at things more closely and more often."
Dean says that having epos has helped him reduce staff theft. "When we first put epos in years ago we spoke to our supplier, YP, about a theft problem. They suggested we make a list of the things that were missing and put it up on the wall so the staff could see. The honest members were flabbergasted that this had happened while the person I suspected just looked shocked. The theft stopped immediately."
Susie Hawkins is a successful forecourt retailer. Her family company, the Simon Smith Group, has six sites in the Gloucester area, employing 100 staff - yet she admits staff theft can still be a problem. As a result, she operates a zero tolerance policy. "No matter how small the incident we take it very seriously," she says. "Just recently we had someone eat a panini and we don't think they paid for it so we are currently looking into it. It might sound trivial but no matter how small the theft we won't tolerate it."
Susie has strict rules on staff purchases: "They have to be made as if the member of staff were a customer, so another member of staff has to serve them and they have to stand at the other side of counter. We get a signed receipt that we keep for three months - we're very rigid on policing that. Even with things like 'reduced to clear' items, we don't let staff have them because where do you draw the line? They could then go to the shelf and see something that's going out of date and decide to take that, too."
Susie makes her zero tolerance policy clear at interview stage. "We also ask interviewees to get a police check. They have to pay £10 for
this but we reimburse them. We
don't make them do this but we do ask them to."
According to the Home Office, Susie is within her rights to ask but interviewees need not comply.
Susie had to call in the police for a recent case where a member of staff was stealing mobile phone top-ups. "They were topping up their own cards but not paying for them, plus they were 'selling' them to other customers but not ringing up the sale and pocketing the money. We had CCTV, epos and till rolls so we could track it all back. It went on for 10 days and they got away with £110.
"A few years ago we had a similar problem in another of our stores and called the police. The evidence was quite complicated because we had till rolls, machines and CCTV proof but despite all this the CPS said they could not prosecute because of lack of evidence. We just hope they aren't going to kick out this latest case."
Of course, the price of fuel makes theft particularly tempting. Susie recalls a clever scam six years ago: "The weights and measures people have to come in to check our pumps. During their procedures they have to take fuel from the tanks. Our tills then think they have a sale but we had a 'return to tank' button which clears this non-sale. One member of staff started to give fuel to friends, using the 'return to tank' button to do this. Losing 10-20 litres of wetstock is not particularly suspicious so we only found out through a tip-off, otherwise we would not have found out until they'd got really greedy. Needless to say, we've now got rid of the 'return to tank' function key."
Susie admits that getting the staffing right is the most difficult part of her job: "Getting them to work well as a team and work well for the company can be difficult so when there is an incident it is very upsetting. It knocks the whole team. But when we've had an incident, we always make sure everybody knows what's happened and go through all the processes again and make it clear that no matter how small, theft will not be tolerated."
Time and again, retailers say incidents of staff theft are carried out by the last person they'd expect, but you really can't go about suspecting everyone. You have to build up loyalty and trust for a team to work, so perhaps the best thing is to follow Susie's lead and have a no-nonsense, zero tolerance approach, That way, no matter how small the theft, everyone knows where they stand.